Teaching is not Customer Service

How a Year as a Barista Helped – and Hindered – my Teaching

When I feel overwhelmed by a growing pile of papers to grade, I remember once having a growing list of  lattes to make, and I smile. It has been nearly six years since I was a barista, but that experience left an indelible impression on me and how I relate to others. I have now spent more time as a college-level educator than I did in the food service industry – but just barely. While wearing a coffee-stained apron, I honed the ability to empathize and listen unjudgmentally; and this has been a priceless asset. But, at the same time, I recognize that the sales tactic of catering to absurd requests does not serve students well.

Few things are more important to teaching than listening. Especially in discussion-based courses, which are all that I currently teach, I know that I must listen and respond thoughtfully to students in order for the conversation to move forward. I have long been frustrated with colleagues who ask an open-ended question and will not accept anything but one particular, narrow answer, for which they have been fishing. By adopting the stance of welcoming any answer as a contribution, no matter how tangentially related to what is correct in the strict sense of the word, I am able to encourage students to participate, even as I engage with them intellectually. Any answer is better than no answer. There is no such thing as a stupid question – and, at least for the purposes of class discussion, I do not believe stupid questions exist.

What about a question that demonstrates the student’s failure to listen to the instructor or to his or her peers? We have all heard questions that seem to indicate that the asker was not present mentally during much if any of the preceding discussion. “Was Marx a communist?” 30-minutes into a discussion of the Communist Manifesto, for example. That is the time to take note of the student and to commit to approaching them after class. In case the student was paying attention but struggled to grasp rudimentary terminology and concepts, a rebuke in front of the rest of the class is hardly a step in the right direction. Just as a barista knows more about coffee than any but the most advanced of customers, so, too, any professor knows enough to make virtually any student feel stupid. We must take great care not to do so.

What about a question that demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge of the topic, perhaps indicating a failure to do the reading? Again, this is an opportunity for one-on-one engagement after class. In case the student is struggling with reading comprehension, class discussion is hardly the place to have that conversation. Shame is as antithetical to eager learning as it is to a satisfied customer experience.

At the same time, some aspects of customer service do not translate into the classroom at all. The aphorism “the customer is always right” is plainly false. Students are often wrong. Thinking of them as customers undermines the basis for forming a healthy educational community: we are united by a common goal of helping students grow intellectually – and socially, emotionally, spiritually, and personally, in general, one would hope, given the ideally holistic nature of the college experience – but ours should be is a relationship of mutual concern and trust. This is radically different from a business model in which the customer pays for a product and demands results, and in which the provider outwardly performs every manner of obeisance to please the customer but actually seeks to divest them of as much money as possible.

Starbucks’s model for responding to customers is the Just Say “Yes” Principle. As a barista, your default response any time any customer asks you to do anything, as long as it is not illegal, should be to just say “yes.” When students ask questions that are not about the course material, they are typically about one of two things: class attendance and assignment deadlines. While there are times to be flexible with students, flexibility must have its limits. Some students are lazy. Others are disorganized. Many are wildly irresponsible. A few tragic souls are simply unreliable, despite their apparent best intentions. Our task is to provide them opportunities to improve, with clear consequences for failure. For undergraduates ill-prepared for college by high schools and parents who seem to hold their hands through all manner of logistics, they need to hear “no” from someone who cares, for whom the very “no” itself is an expression of caring. If they do not learn the importance of punctuality and reliability now, then when? After they lose their first job?

Those of us who have spent time waiting tables and pouring shots of espresso prior to finding full-time work as academics should look back on those experiences not as time wasted but, rather, as an integral part of the learning journey. Part of being right in the present, defining what is right in the classroom, is to remember what it is to be wrong or at least to be at the mercy of an arbitrary consumer on the other side of the register.

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